On Fridays, we are posing questions to Dr. Bruce Rogers-Vaughn (right), an ordained Baptist minister, pastoral psychotherapist and Associate Professor of the Practice of Pastoral Theology and Counseling at Vanderbilt Divinity School, and the author of Caring for Souls in a Neoliberal Age (Palgrave, 2019). Bruce presses for a “post-capitalist pastoral theology” that empowers people to resist the system (instead of adapt to it), to embrace communion and wholeness in relation to others and the earth (instead of functioning in accord with the values of production and consumption) and to pursue interdependent reliance within the web of human relationships (instead of accepting shame-based personal responsibility narratives).
RD.net: You say that neoliberalism is not only about economics. That it is a full-fledged religion that encompasses everything! How does neoliberalism affect politics and culture too?
BRV: The political is implicated in the economic. When I say “political,” I’m not simply talking about that media-driven horse race we call “politics.” Under neoliberal governance, politics has become a house of mirrors. Again, George Carlin: “Politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice. You have owners.” When I use the word “political,” I’m talking about the way power flows through society. In neoliberal times, the dramatic increase in economic inequality is matched by an increase in political inequality. Right-wing neoliberal intellectuals and politicians pontificate about wanting “smaller government.” This is another lie. It actually takes a monstrously large and intrusive government for economic elites to maintain control over the masses. Thus, both political parties, in the USA, support large government. Growing inequality is not due to technology or globalization, as even progressives often claim, but to the seizure of state power by class elites. Monopoly corporations, and individuals whose wealth is equal to the GDP of small countries, are able and willing to impose their will on legislation, as well as the courts and penal systems.
In the USA, the press and media bemoan “the polarization of politics.” Yet, amazingly, neoliberal policies and practices have full-throated bipartisan support. Carlin was telling the truth. We have no choice to speak of. The choice we do have is between what Nancy Fraser calls “progressive neoliberalism” (which she actually claims is dominant), and, on the right, “reactionary neoliberalism.” It is neoliberalism regardless of how you vote. The upshot of all this is that the working class, and even those in the middle class, have virtually no political influence. Neoliberalism was anti-democratic from its roots in the early twentieth century, and it remains so to this day. It inevitably replaces democracy with oligarchy. Even former president Jimmy Carter, as reported by the German news source Der Spiegel in 2013, claimed that the USA “has no functioning democracy at this moment.” I would add to this, and this may be something for us to discuss at a later time, that neoliberalism is a neo-coloniality. This means, among other things, that political power under neoliberalism is not only classed, but raced and gendered.
This leaves the fact that neoliberalism is a cultural power. I hardly know where to begin. Perhaps I should start by returning to Gramsci’s notion of hegemony. What he meant by this is that any accepted social order, to use a phrase others have created, “manufactures consent.” It is form of power that controls us from the inside out, setting expectations for what we see as “normal” and desirable. And what has become normal today is our casual acquiescence to the idea that competition, entrepreneurship, and personal responsibility is just how life is. We are nurtured to think of ourselves as our own little businesses, cornering our individual brands and increasing our personal capital as best we can. Not long ago someone was talking to me in a psychotherapy session, and told me he was passing a middle school playground that morning and heard two kids getting into a fight. One was yelling at the other: “You’re stealing my brand!”
Moreover, our relationships have become superficial, as we use our social media profiles to promote ourselves and define who we are. And, goaded by neoliberal beliefs, we set “benchmarks” for ourselves that are impossible to attain. Recent research has confirmed that we have become more perfectionistic over the past three decades, to a degree that would make even the staunchest Puritan blush with shame. I would go so far as to say that our cultural ideals have become sadistic. Inequality in the economic and political realms is matched by inequality in the interpersonal and psychological realms. We insist that all individuals be entrepreneurs, and demand that they compete, yet deprive them of the resources that would be necessary to succeed. We are living out “the Hunger Games” in real time. Which tends to turn those of us who are not powerful politically and economically—which is to say the vast majority of us—into masochists. We simply don’t have the resources to “be all we can be,” and yet we blame ourselves for failing. No wonder we are becoming more depressed, lonely, anxious, and addicted by the droves. We hardly have a chance.